The new layers

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Between 1900 and 1979 the worst year for strikes in Britain was 1927, with just 1.17 million strike days. It was the year after the General Strike, after which the miners (in whose support the 1926 Strike had been called) had gone down to a crushing defeat. Many of the previous year’s activists had been victimised and the leaders of the movement were desperate to promote compromise.

In three of the last four years, strike levels have been lower even than they were in 1927 (2008: 759,000 days; 2009: 455,000 days and 2010: 365,000 days). “The biggest wave of industrial action since 1926”, as some enthusiastic voices reported the public sector strikes of 2011, represented more struggle admittedly more than the seventy-year nadir of 1927, but only marginally more. The total number of strikes days “lost” during the 2011 strikes (1.39 million strike days) was less than 1 percent of the strikes in 1926 (160 million days).

Those of us who are committed to an idea of working-class struggle, along the lines once envisaged by Marx (“the proletariat is revolutionary relative to the bourgeoisie because, having itself grown up on the basis of large-scale industry, it strives to strip off from production the capitalist character that the bourgeoisie seeks to perpetuate”) should be honest with ourselves. Strikes are at historically low levels; trade union membership is half what it was, and union density in the private sector in particular has fallen sharper still.

If there is hope it lies in the new layers: workers unburdened by 40 years of defeats.

Looking at where jobs have been growing the UK economy, compared to four years ago, there have been modest rises in the number of workers employed in two sectors in particular: health (by around 10%) and transport (around 5%). These sectors have survived the recession because they are on a trend of long-term jobs growth. With more people living into their 90s, there are inevitably going to be more people in future involved in nursing and in all forms of adult, social care.

Transport includes all the drivers who deliver the books, cds, furniture, second hand goods and even food shopping that are increasingly purchased online. The Unite website reports recent strikes by bus drivers, protests by National Express drivers showing their solidarity for strikers in the US, and above inflation pay rises for Unite members working for UPS. There is clearly a lot going on; more, relatively speaking, than 30 years ago when drivers where seen as a conservative layer compared to steel and power workers, miners, etc.

One group of workers who it is difficult to track through the statistics are call centre workers, who by general estimate now stand at around 1 million people, or 4% of the total UK workforce. Of course, “call centre worker”, like “factory worker”, describes the content of how people work, and how they are managed, rather than the sector of the economy they work for. Call centre workers in the civil service tend to be in PCS, in banking they might be in Unifi or Unite. Many ex-BT, at Virgin and elsewhere are in CWU.

Call centres are worth watching because theirs is a type of working which people can go into relatively young, and because of the intense disciplinary conditions which are common in the industry, the intense scrutiny there can be of the time workers to take to answer calls or their average duration, the bans on toilet breaks, the electronic monitoring of the content of the phone calls, the dismissal of union reps. These are the sorts of conditions which time and again throughout the past 150 years have caused groups of workers to strike.

If the focus is on the unions, then right now I would encourage readers to look at two groups in particular:

Unions organising at the intersection between secure and insecure work. Under the past 30 years of neoliberalism, there have been dramatic changes to the nature of the employment contract. The proportion of workers who are engaged directly (ie non-agency), as employees (ie not self-employed), on full-time permanent contracts, is shrinking year on year, and is now down to around 55% of all workers. It is hard to organise the most precarious workers, but if they are going to be organised (as once the unions managed to organise the dockers, the most precarious of all workers in late Victorian Britain), it is most likely to come about through strikes by intermediate groups, neither as secure as classroom teachers, nor as insecure as agency workers on zero-hours contracts in a canning factory.

Just to give an example of how this might work: there have been a number of strikes by groups of London cleaners in the past couple of years including London underground cleaners and cleaners at SOAS. In both cases, the proximity of unorganised to organised groups of workers has made it easier to bring about solidarity from other groups of workers, and easier for the cleaners themselves to organise.  If you are going to try to organise the unorganised, mere activist good sense suggests that this is far easier done near an existing union base than in areas where unions are in all other respects very weak.

Workers organising inside and against their own unions. Workers at One Housing Group, on strike this week, give an example of how it can be done. Historically, the housing association, like most others, has been organised by Unison. But when the employer awarded at the same time, its chief executive a £31,000 pay rise, and many of its workers an £8,000 pay cut, the initiative was taken by Unite, a union which then represented just a tiny proportion of the workers. Unite was able to take a lead because of the organising style of Unison, which has long involved a very small number of national officials representing whole branches of the economy (education, health, housing, etc). It is not an organising approach. There is relatively little emphasis on holding meetings, supporting reps, etc. In a year, Unite’s membership has risen ten fold. Workers are now on a three day strike, with more strikes threatened.

Another example is the Pop Up union at Sussex University. There has been a similar dynamic on site, with clerical grades and security guards historically represented by Unison, a union which organises in the higher education sector in the same way that it organises in social housing. Reps have set about addressing the disparity between Unison and the other unions on campus, not by poaching Unison’s members, but by setting up an all-grades workplace union, which workers are invite to join on a “dual” basis. The Popup union has been registered as an independent union with the Certification Officer, has had meeting many times larger than any of the individual unions have been able to call by themselves, and has begun balloting for stikes. It is not always onwards. The union has had to retreat, a little, in this past week after the employer threatened it with an injunction. The Popup form is not a magic cure to the general weaknesses of the trade union movement, but neither, as a comrade has represented it, “the desperate gamble of a mini-union to bypass the dead hand of the union bureaucracy.” It is instead an attempt to build up the confidence of people, within their existing unions, to strike.

Anyone who who thinks that the trade union movement in 2013 already represents the final organisational form that the British working class has adopted, to last from here to the other side of a revolutionary struggle, reveals only the poverty of their ambitions.

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